ALABAMA VOICES: Public libraries offer help for homework
Montgomery Advertiser, Sunday, August 7, 2006


By Rebecca Mitchell

Sunday night, in any town in Alabama: "Mom, I have a three-page report on the planet Mars due at 8:15 in the morning!"

Homework! Who dreads it more - children, parents or teachers?

Luckily, there is help for Alabama's students. Best of all, it's free.

Last year, Alabama became one of the first states in the nation to offer free online homework help for students grades four through college intro courses. Funded by a federal grant through the Alabama Public Library Service, homeworkalabama.org allows a student to log onto the Internet and get a live online tutor to help with a homework problem in math, social studies, science and English.

www.homeworkalabama.org is available from 3 p.m. to midnight seven days a week. Any Alabama citizen can use the service by typing in an Alabama zip code, grade level and subject. Federal and state dollars will fund the service for fiscal year 2007. The homework service is staffed by trained tutors who have undergone a seven-year background check. Many of these tutors are retired teachers or graduate students and are here in the United States.

Students, don't get your hopes up -- tutors won't do the work for you. They guide you into understanding and solving the problem by demonstrating with a chalkboard or with instant messaging techniques.

Sessions are monitored and students supply feedback on their tutor. Waiting time for a tutor is usually less than five minutes. If you don't have a computer with Internet access at home, go to one of the more than 220 public libraries in the state. Almost all have free public access terminals where students can do their work.

(Note: There may be changes in fiscal 2007 for homeworkalabama.org hours and authentication. These changes are still to be determined.)

Alabama students logged some 56,000 sessions on homeworkalabama.org last year. Most were middle school students needing help with a math problem. The best part of homeworkalabama.org is it levels the playing field. Kids in rural farming communities have the same access to help as kids in large urban areas.

Homeworkalabama.org has proved so successful that other states are looking at copying our service. Kansas will debut its homework site in September.

Public libraries have even more free learning services. Your public library offers Learning Express Library (Learn-a-Test), a free practice test database that allows anyone to take any of 300 standardized tests, have them graded online and explained immediately. Tests offered include the GED, SAT, ACT, civil service exams, elementary reading and writing skills, and others. Tests vary in grade level and can be taken multiple times.

If tests unnerve you, consider starting here with complete privacy in taking your practice test. All you need is your library card number to begin your free account with the database. Tests can be taken at any computer with Internet access -- at your home, school, office or library. High school students can practice college entrance exams and those of any age can prepare for the GED by taking the practice test.

In 1999, Alabama was a national leader with its statewide virtual library service. Through the cooperative efforts of five state agencies -- Alabama Public Library Service, Alabama Commission on Higher Education, Alabama Department of Postsecondary Education, Alabama Department of Education and the Alabama Supercomputer Authority -- the Alabama Virtual Library was born.

This service continues to be a vital reference source for students. The Alabama Virtual Library card, free at your public library, allows you to access more than 90 databases that have magazine, journal and newspaper articles for research.

It's not just for the students -- there are encyclopedias, medical-related databases, even an auto repair reference center on the site. This free AVL card, available at any public library or public school library, has something for everyone in your home. You can access the AVL from any computer with Internet access with your AVL card number.

Today's public libraries are light years away from the hush-hush world overseen by a finger-pointing librarian of yesteryear. Since 1998, when the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation chose Alabama to be the first state to receive a grant to provide public Internet access in libraries, we have not slowed down.

Yes, we still offer books to check out, but we also offer films, magazines, newspapers, downloadable audio books, summer reading programs, book clubs, computer classes, books on tape for physically and visually impaired patrons, as well as our live online homework help, Learning Express free standardized practice tests and the Alabama Virtual Library.

With the many services public libraries offer, we can tell you the Internet has not caused the demise of public libraries, as many feared. We are using the electronic world of the Internet as yet another means of providing information to you.

School will begin soon. Homework will be assigned. Just remember if you need a little extra help, the public library is there for you -- at no charge. Most online resources are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Come visit us and get your library card. We'll be looking for you.

Rebecca Mitchell is the State Librarian of Alabama.